There was something ironic about the latest headlines detailing President Barack Obama’s record fundraising success. His gigantic haul in September — some $181 million — was a big step up from the record pace set by both campaigns in August, when the president and his “affiliates” took in $114 million while Gov. Mitt Romney and his affiliate team took in $111 million.
If those numbers don’t get your attention, consider this: As of August, Obama’s fundraising total was $742 million, and Romney’s was $638 million. Of course, that doesn’t count the Super-Duper PACs, which, thanks to the Supreme Court, are raising and spending untold hundreds of millions — and in many cases without even disclosing their donors. Another loophole.
To be sure, for some of those ponying up the big bucks, it’s a drop in the bucket, not only because they are really that rich — call it the .001 percent — but also because, from a business point of view, the next administration will be making many billions of dollars worth of decisions on everything from tax policy to loophole closing to trade to environmental regulation. Investing in campaigns, more than one big-shot businessperson has told me over the years, just makes sense. The return on investment if you win (and you always win if you bet both sides, as many do) in terms of access to decision-makers alone is a huge multiple over the dollar investment.
But here’s the funny part: Even as Obama once again clogs up traffic in my hometown of Los Angeles, where the dominant sound, if not helicopters overhead, is the suction-like noise of a vacuum cleaner inhaling money from here to spend somewhere else, all the fundraising seems to have little to do with what’s happening in the race right now.
Obama may be raising money hand over fist, but he’s struggling because he did just that for 90 minutes. Whether or not Romney bests him this month (he probably won’t) or GOP Super PACs do (they probably will), it is the first debate that is driving the numbers that matter. And what seems to have slowed Romney’s momentum since the first debate is not Obama’s ads, but the other number: the drop below 8 percent in unemployment.
Of course money matters, in politics as in life. Having none, or nowhere near enough, can be or feel deadly. At the same time, in politics as in life, having enough, even having way more than enough, is no guarantee of success or happiness.
The race for cash in politics continues to wreck the system in all kinds of ways. It drives decent people who don’t want to spend their lives cozying up to rich people and lobbyists into other lines of work. I remember deciding decades ago, when I moved out of the district I grew up in (and had returned to thinking I might run), that I just couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life asking people to give me money. I loved policy. I have always been happy to raise money for good causes. But for me? A life of pretending a bad idea is a good idea because of the size of someone’s wallet? A life in which “friends” and “funders” are — of necessity, not choice — one and the same? Nah. Money distorts the debate about important ideas because access is influence, and as Bob Dole once famously remarked, there are no PACs for poor kids.
What money definitely buys are television advertisements, almost all of which are negative. We who live in California may pay the price of the system in the never-ending traffic jams caused by candidates who come calling. But being a true-blue state (if a Democrat can’t win California, he simply isn’t going to win, period), we are spared most of the political ads that drive our fellow citizens in states like Ohio and Florida to make more visits to the kitchen than might be good for their waistlines.
Even so, I try to collect the ads for my students to watch each week, and what surprises me most — and this is on a bipartisan basis — is how unerringly forgettable they are. We have an informal competition going for the best political ad of the season, and so far, all we have are losers. To think of all the handshakes and traffic jams and filet mignon dinners that went into making such blather. Is anyone really persuaded by any of it?
Money may be the mother’s milk of politics, but sometimes, enough is enough.